The history of the land on which the Vojanovy sady park is located dates back to the early Middle Ages. Many sources state that there used to be the garden of the Bishop’s Court, northwest of the end of the Judith Bridge. However, there is no credible evidence to back up this hypothesis. The latest surveys indicate that the original early mediaeval Bishop’s Court was located somewhere between the western part of the Ministry of Finance complex on Dražické náměstí and Letenská ulice. 

As can be seen from the attached map, the area to the east, where this garden theoretically used to lie, was not only outside the mediaeval walls of Malá Strana, but most importantly, almost the entire area, corresponding to what is now the park, was a flood zone, which has been corroborated by modern-day archaeological surveys. They prove that the left bank of the Vltava also followed a significantly different course. Back then, it copied the line of what is now ulice U Lužického semináře, and there is no doubt that this low, gently sloping bank was regularly flooded by the river. Furthermore, reliable sources show that the area outside the eastern wall of Malá Strana was a shallow swampy ditch, copying the ancient bed of the Vltava. Our idea of the course taken by this „periphery“ of mediaeval Malá Strana is further refined by the results of surveys that show that there was once a fishing and craft settlement called Na Písku, which also included a church with a cemetery, at the place we now know as Klárovo, on a little silt island. That settlement disappeared when weirs were constructed on the Vltava, causing the river level to rise around the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries. The church was later restored and consecrated to St. Peter.

There would have been many different vineyards and nurseries in Prague in the Late Middle Ages, but the emergence of composed and cultivated gardens in and around historical Prague can only be dated from the 16th century. Back then, in the spirit of the Renaissance, gardens with ever more elaborate layouts and vegetation were established, which were used for pleasure, entertainment, cultivation purposes and as a mark of prestige. These gardens became home to a great many new, often exotic species of plants, small structures and sculptural works of art. The oldest garden of this type in Prague is the Royal Garden, which still exists today, built by Ferdinand I on the spur above the Deer Moat in 1536. 

Hypothetical schematic of the development of the northern part of Malá Strana in the 13th century. Drawing © Ondřej Šefců.

  1. The dashed line marks what is now the park

  2. In the 13th century, the channel of the Vltava River was in some places several dozen metres wider than it is today

  3. The probable location of the Bishop’s Court

  4. The Commander of the Johannite Order (Knights Hospitaller) with the Church of Our Lady below the chain end of the bridge

  5. The eastern wall of Malá Strana with gates

  6. Muddy depression, following the original Vltava channel

  7. Ancient trade routes heading east and north and to the ford across the Vltava (roughly the site of what is now the Mánes Bridge)

  8. Na Pískách settlement with the Romanesque church

  9. St. Thomas Church

  10. Parish Church of St. Nicholas with the cemetery

  11. St. Wenceslas Rotunda (the remnant of the rotunda is accessible via the former Jesuit College building on Malostranské náměstí)

  12. Romanesque St. Martin’s Church (defunct)

  13. Romanesque St. Michael’s Church (defunct)

  14. St. Andrew’s Rotunda (defunct)

  15. All Saints Chapel at Prague Castle

  16. Western end of the stone Judith Bridge on the left bank

  17. Southern line of the mediaeval fortifications of Malá Strana with the gate and moat

  18. Kampa island

  19. Current line of the left bank

  20. Romanesque Queen Judith’s Bridge

Schematic plan of Malá Strana in the 18th century showing the grounds of the Carmelite convent in Malá Strana and garden. Drawing © Ondřej Šefců

  1. Garden of the Carmelite convent, now Vojanovy sady park

  2. Part of the embankment created by sediment and dumped rubble. In the middle, the only preserved natural bank in the city centre with access to the ford. A ferry also ran here in the 18th century.

  3. Kampa island with buildings; the current terrain of the island was not created until the 16th century

  4. Charles Bridge

  5. Grand Priory of the Knights of Malta with the convent and Church of the Virgin Mary below the chain at the end of the bridge

  6. St. Joseph’s Church

  7. Baroque Church of St. Nicholas with the House of the Professed

  8. Baroque St. Thomas’ Church with the Convent of the Order of Saint Augustine

  9. Wallenstein Palace and garden

  10. All Saints Church at Prague Castle

  11. Daun Palace and garden
    (Vrtbov Palace since 1715)

  12. Malá Strana Armoury

  13. Herget Brickworks

The mystery of the convent gardens

The layout of mediaeval cities did not leave much space for building large gardens. Medicinal herbs, spices and vegetables were usually grown on cramped plots; trees were somewhat rare. The oldest gardens in cities, and thus also in Prague, were created mainly in the grounds of monasteries, especially those of the Benedictines, Premonstratensians, Cistercians, Augustinians and Franciscans. 

Monastery gardens had a similar layout from the early Middle Ages, both as a result of practical needs and to reflect their mystical symbolism. The principal part was the cloister garden, usually located along the southern facade of the church, with a typical symmetrical arrangement, a lawn, herbs and flowers, and often including a well. This closed, regularly laid out garden was usually used for contemplation, reading, teaching or for taking walks.

Depending on the size of the monastery and its overall layout, the gardens were used to grow ornamental plants (flowers for decorating altars) and utility crops, especially fruit trees, vegetables, and of course herbs and medicinal plants. The crops grown there were often used in the convent kitchen, and remarkably sophisticated use was made of medicinal herbs. Of course, larger complexes also housed animals, both draft and breeding. Tanks used for fish farming were no exception.

Mediaeval monasteries played a crucial role in the development of botany, the production of medicines, the rise of gastronomy and related fields. This is evidenced by various treatises written in monastery scriptoriums. Even the most ancient records show that these were often very insightful comments, and some of those dietary recommendations are still relevant today.

Drawing of the painting of the Madonna in a Walled Garden by the Flemish painter known as the Master of the Tiburtine Sibyl, from the end of the 15th century (the painting is in the collection of the Diocesan Museum in Litoměřice). This remarkable late Gothic painting was apparently inspired by a mysterious Old Testament text, the Song of Songs (Canticum Canticorum). The painting contains a great deal of symbolism, but also real depictions that give us a better idea of how the old monastery gardens used to look. Drawing © Ondřej Šefců.

  1. The high enclosure wall, a symbol of the chastity of the Virgin Mary; the motif of a gate had a similar meaning. In certain buildings, massive walls separated the monastery gardens from the outside world, which had not only a symbolic meaning, but also a practical purpose.

  2. The figure of the peacock was a symbol of immortality.  The peacock was not usually found in monastery gardens, but tends to appear more as a living addition to château gardens from the 18th century. A large family of peacocks adds some noisy and most welcome variety in Vojanovy sady

  3. Raised flower beds used to be common in gardens and not only in monasteries; they were separated by various wooden structures, or wire fences.

  4. The Virgin Mary is seated on turf, which has several meanings. Seats made of turf or other natural materials were common in historical gardens. Even in the later advanced garden art of the Classicist and Romantic periods, natural garden accessories were preferred, so as not to disrupt the character of the setting

  5. The half-open gate to the garden symbolises that souls can approach God according to the Gospel of John

  6. The sparse image contains other characteristic motifs that traditionally go to make up the garden. These especially include water with a little bridge, creating intimate spaces combined with views of the landscape or viewpoints.